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Secondary School that doesn't set: any experience?

(446 Posts)
Tomatillo Thu 05-Oct-17 22:29:21

I was at an open day for our catchment secondary this week and was surprised to find out that they have just moved to a system where there is no setting at all for any subject in any year. Has anyone had experience of this? Does it work, especially for the brightest?

The teacher who is leading this at the school said that the research showed that only the top 10% benefitted from setting and that removing setting was neutral for the middle band and beneficial for the bottom half. They also talked about the benefits for self-esteem, behaviour and teacher expectations. Assuming this is all correct (I've not yet looked it up in detail) then I can completely see why a comprehensive school (which this is) would want to do this for the benefit of everyone. The difficulty is that we're pretty sure that DD is well within the top 10% for the core academic subjects. Whilst I appreciate that things can change at secondary, her primary have made it very clear that they consider her to be exceptionally able. My own schooling was very heavily set, with sets for almost everything and quite finely graded with 12 levels for maths. This meant that we progressed very fast and I've always thought that helped me go from my very average comp to a 1st at Cambridge. I'm pretty concerned that she'll be disadvantaged if she goes to this school. I asked the teacher about the top students and they essentially said that there were issues for the top group and they appreciated our concerns.

Does anyone have any experience of this? At the moment we are feeling that it would be the wrong decision for her.


AtSea1979 Thu 05-Oct-17 22:32:44

No experience but watching with interest

noblegiraffe Thu 05-Oct-17 22:34:51

I'd be very dubious of any school that did not set in any way for maths. I'm deeply suspicious of the research regarding setting in maths and think it's either bogus, or doesn't apply to the UK.

I think they will find that the shit hits the fan in the maths department fairly rapidly.

Tomatillo Thu 05-Oct-17 22:56:26

Thanks noble - do you know the research at all? I have to say that I am pretty sceptical, especially for maths. The school has gradually been phasing out sets for all subjects and this year still have maths sets but for DDs year they would be gone so there would be no setting at all, even at GCSE. So her year would be the year where the shit hit the fan I suspect...

noblegiraffe Thu 05-Oct-17 23:26:52

Not sure about general subjects, but Jo Boaler is the go-to person if you want research against setting in maths. It all looks impressive, but there have been rows because she refused to name the schools she worked in, others tried to find them and the results looked like they'd been massaged and god knows what really went on. Anyway, Jo is currently publishing lots of bullshit about maths education and growth mindset with stuff about how mistakes grow the brain and dodgy pictures of brain scans. I'm totally unimpressed with her current work, so I'm more inclined to believe the criticism of her work on setting than her version of events.

Research about setting versus mixed ability is also often not UK based. Any country that uses a mastery approach in primary, or which holds failing students back a year cannot be compared to the UK. By secondary there is a huge range in abilities in maths (even as much as 7 years difference in one class) and this means that a teacher cannot effectively differentiate for the whole ability spectrum. In other countries the ability range may be restricted to a couple of years which is far more manageable.

In addition, mixed ability maths teaching would require an entirely different approach in the classroom. Usually the suggestion is the use of open-ended problems which students can access at any level. UK teachers do not have the resources or training for this style of teaching. What will probably happen is that the teachers in the school will attempt to teach to the middle.

bluejelly Thu 05-Oct-17 23:36:02

My comprehensive school didn't set anything (it was in the ILEA days). I left with straight As, so it didn't so me any harm!
Good teachers can teach mixed ability classes.

Mumoftwoyoungkids Thu 05-Oct-17 23:47:58

I have some anecdata on this:-

I am high ability. The school I went to had different views on setting in different departments. Some subjects were heavily set (maths, languages), some subjects were lightly set (science, humanities), some subjects were not set at all (English, Technology).

I did very well at maths and languages, reasonably at Science and geography, badly at English and Technology.

To be fair I am a mathematician but that doesn't explain the languages - I really shouldn't have done better in Spanish than in Physics! (Especially as I went on to do A level physics and got an A.)

I think the school may be right - setting is fine unless you are in the top 10% - in which case - send your child to a school that teaches in a way that enables them to reach their potential.

leccybill Thu 05-Oct-17 23:56:51

Many secondaries are moving to mixed ability classes across KS3, supposedly first all of the logical reasons you have stated above, but, I suspect, primarily to save money.
A typical cohort of 180-190 pupils needs 6 mixed ability classes of 31, rather than a split into 2 sides with 4 groups on each (typically top set of 30, 2 middles of 25ish and a low ability/nurture of 10-15), thus 8 classes needed. Teacher numbers can be reduced this way. Seen it done too many times to mention in several schools in my area in recent years. Cuts biting deep now.

Out2pasture Thu 05-Oct-17 23:58:19

the size of the school might make a difference? I would expect some smaller ones to not be able to offer different sets...

RedSkyAtNight Fri 06-Oct-17 07:47:35

DC' s secondary does not set in any subject (and hasn't for as along as I know, so not a new thing!) although it does some ability grouping for maths (starting with 2 bands in Y7 and getting more granular as you go up the school).

My experience is that the teachers have managed to differentiate appropriate work well and I've never been sure what more sets would have given us.

Interestingly the next nearest secondary, which has a near identical demographic of intake does set in every subject from day 1.
If you compare their A*-B results they are near identical in every subject.

TeenTimesTwo Fri 06-Oct-17 08:29:26

Thornden school in Hants doesn't set for much (but I think it sets for Maths) and is one of the best achieving schools in the county. @Draylon may be able to tell you more.

Personally I'd be worried with a school who has just moved to this system as the teachers won't be practiced in providing the differentiating necessary. My lower ability DD is thriving and much more confident at secondary which I put down partly to being set so she doesn't have the bright kids in her class making her feel less able all the time.

calzone Fri 06-Oct-17 08:36:06

Both my boys are in the top 10% and there is a top top set and the rest of the groups are mixed ability.

They would hate to be in mixed ability as sadly, the behaviour gets worse and the disruptive attitudes appear.

Yellowheart Fri 06-Oct-17 08:38:19

Haven't read the whole thread but I've now worked for 12 years in a school were there is no setting except for maths and sort of for science, where the brightest do triple sciences and everyone else is mixed ability. Prior to this I was at a school that set for everything. I def feel that with skilled teachers not setting is preferable for the vast vast majority of kids. If teachers are skilled in differentiating it is not a problem as the most able are challenged and the least able supported. In the kind of school I work in bottom sets would be full of children that were disaffected and 'naughty and mostly boys and often English as an additional language', it'd be hell to teach and very hard to learn in. Not setting is the way forward imo

Yellowheart Fri 06-Oct-17 08:39:17

Oh and the school I teach at now has among the top 3 best results in the area

Crumbs1 Fri 06-Oct-17 08:44:29

The comprehensive my eldest two attended only set for maths at GCSE and above. Fluid movements between sets. No other subjects were set. They did fine. Helping less able peers supports rather than hinders learning.

Natsku Fri 06-Oct-17 08:48:07

It really depends on how good the teachers are at differentiation (which I'd be concerned they not be as not-setting has only just been introduced) but when teachers are good then it does work. I'm in Finland and there's no setting at all here but teachers know how to differentiate within the class so that everyone gets the most out of it.

CadleCrap Fri 06-Oct-17 08:50:57

I have taught maths in a seconds school that did not set and it was hell.

There was no flexibility in the curriculum so I ended up trying to teach trig ( as an example) to some students who didn't understand column addition or subtraction. No one benefited.

Dixiechickonhols Fri 06-Oct-17 09:08:50

Tomatillo. If you think your DC will be in the 10% then the school are admitting she will be disadvantaged but for the greater good. Also it's not tried and tested at the school. Personally it would concern me.

What does your DC think? Mine has just started yr 7 at a grammar. She has said to me a few times how much better it is than old school because everyone doing same work at same pace.

Yr 6 was very much teacher concentrate on main part of class, TA help bottom group and top 4 (inc my daughter) just get on with x or y. She used to moan about reading a book in class pace was so slow but some reading at 8 yr old level some 16 year old.

On the plus side she has enjoyed staying with her form for lessons, made life easier for her finding her way around as they all go together and found it easy to make friends as her school does not set until yr 9 but they are all in the top 10% group so similar ability.

I went to a comp that only set for english and maths and personally did not like the mixed ability classes. Not much disruption as it was a good school but definitely not challenged and pace was too slow.

Badbadbunny Fri 06-Oct-17 09:11:13

How can you teach a room full of kids who are working towards different exams, i.e. some will be doing higher and some foundation GCSEs?

When I was at school, it was GCEs and CSEs. I chose a couple of "unpopular" subjects, German and History, were there were only about 20 of us in the year doing those subjects, so there was only one class for mixed GCE and CSE. It was ridiculous. The teacher did all the CSE work first as they "left" earlier at Easter as CSE's were done before GCEs, so Feb/Mar was spent on revision for CSE standard work, then we had a really hellish busy last few weeks to do the GCE work with no revision time for that! Not only that, but the disruption was awful as (sorry for the stereotyping), the CSE pupils were the disaffected ones who just wanted to mess around and dragged the whole class down.

At the very least, I'd have thought you'd have to split classes according to pupils doing higher and those doing foundation, surely???

shyness247 Fri 06-Oct-17 09:13:18

Unfortunately, this is schools pandering to two key aspects of UK life: the anti-elitist brigade and the need to get as many kids as possible up to what is a pretty low level of achievement, set by politicians as the 'success' level.

It is utterly typical and a complete indictment of the UK system that a teacher feels entirely comfortable saying the top 10% can safely be ignored. In Wales, whilst the system has the same attitude, there is an open admission by the inspectorate (Estyn) and many politicians that simply letting the brightest rot in a corner is not acceptable.

I would seriously consider whether you can really get on with your school. Many of us face this dilemma, and it is, I accept, not a comfortable position to be put in.

2014newme Fri 06-Oct-17 09:28:15

I would not be happy with this but my kids are top end so that's why. I'd pick a different school

iseenodust Fri 06-Oct-17 09:38:23

simply letting the brightest rot in a corner is not acceptable

This was my experience as a bright kid in a comprehensive that only set for maths and why I was adamant it was not going to happen to DS.
I would explore other schools too.

Fresh8008 Fri 06-Oct-17 09:57:50

As a parent this sounds like throwing the clever kids under the bus for the greater good of the school getting more level 4's over the line.

I would expect the brightest children to leach away and it would eventually be a school that just doesn't even try to cater for clever children.

What a waste. Time to start looking for a different school.

Tomatillo Fri 06-Oct-17 10:51:35

Thanks all for your replies, it sounds as if experience is quite mixed but more negative than positive.

Just to respond to some of the Qs. The school is just going from a 180 intake to 210 so around average size? The Head didn't give any hint of this policy in his talk, the only reason we found out about it was through talking to the teachers and specifically asking about sets then finding the teacher who was in charge of the policy. He definitely gave the impression that this was being done for positive reasons rather than for cost cutting but I imagine they would say that! The teachers were all very positive about the change but the reasons they gave were geared to the bottom end/behaviour. So the science teacher was telling us how they had fewer classes with poor behaviour because the disruptive children were more dispersed. They were also saying that it reduced the risk of teachers writing off the less able and that it meant that the teachers weren't landed with the demoralising bottom set! When pushed on the most able they were a bit dismissive.

I am pretty worried about it I think. I know it is early days for DD but her primary teachers are fairly clear that they regard her as very strong: she is achieving highly and all of her CAT scores are between mid-130s and 141, which would put her in the top couple of %. I worry that if she went there she'd not be challenged and that she'd develop an attitude that there's no need to try. We would have a reasonable chance of getting into the neighbouring catchment school, which we liked much more. Otherwise there are several private, selective girls schools and it looks as if that might be where we are headed which is a shame as it was not really what I wanted.

Fresh8008 Fri 06-Oct-17 11:02:33

Maybe the school should officially become a secondary modern and be honest with parents, so they know what they are getting.

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